The world’s population is increasingly urban. The world’s economic growth and sustainable development will depend more and more on the sustainable development of those territories and the population that will live in them. By 2050, 75 percent of the Earth’s population will live in cities.
Guatemala needs an urban agenda. At this time we do not have a public policy for urban development and cities, although the Katun 2032 identifies the need for such a policy. Guatemala is beginning an urbanization process that the rest of Latin America completed 20 years ago. The average urbanization rate in Latin America is 80 percent and Guatemala hardly exceeds 55 percent.
Being the last country to undergo this process has certain advantages, such as learning the lessons of others, learning from hits and misses.
The first lesson is that any country’s development necessarily requires development of its cities. There is not a single developed country that is predominantly rural and agricultural. We must build city-regions that combine urban and rural aspects in each region. This is fundamental in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity of the North Triangle (PAPTN by its Spanish acronym).
People gather in cities to innovate, add value to their products and exchange products and services efficiently. Planned and orderly urban development is a public policy priority that ensures that public services can be provided more efficiently to city dwellers. This first lesson implies understanding that we need national criteria to coordinate the relationship between cities and their neighborhoods. It means building the necessary urban infrastructure in these cities and connectivity among them to generate local competitiveness.
Cities range from small and medium-sized ones with 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants to metropolitan regions that will surpass one million dwellers, such as Xela and Cobán-Carchá.
The second lesson is the need to design public policies that coordinate the integration between the rural and urban population in the framework of a vision for the development of people in the territory. The natural trend is for more than half of the young people in rural areas to seek better opportunities by migrating to urban areas. The path begins at the municipal capital, followed by some intermediate regional city, a nearby metropolitan region, Guatemala City or migration to the United States. The challenge is to generate development conditions in these small, medium-sized and intermediate cities to facilitate development in smaller and rural communities. It is not through isolation or confrontation between rural and urban areas that the base for development can be broadened, but rather by coordinating the relationship between the populations of both territories.
Migration exerts pressure on urban centers with poor infrastructure, those that lack land-use plans and have no institutions to serve a population that seeks opportunities. For these reasons, we must prepare these territories to become orderly, inclusive, competitive and resilient cities. This means limiting urban sprawl and taking care of ecosystems.
Obviously, we cannot ignore the fact that a rural population will always exist. Although it will drop from the current 45 percent to around 20 percent of the total, this means 8 million inhabitants. We must invest in human development (education, health and capacity building) in the territories where these people live to ensure comprehensive human development. Rural poverty is harsh, but urban poverty is cruel. Not planning adequately will doom millions of people to living in urban poverty belts.
The most important lesson is that achieving sustainable urban growth and implementation of an urban agenda requires institutions capable of promoting these policies. The urbanization process exceeds the capacities of municipalities and the existing institutions. The Ministry of Urban Development and Housing must implement public policies for building housing in neighborhoods and cities, not 35 kilometers away on roads that lead nowhere. We have to support the metropolitan regions of Cobán, Xela, Jutiapa, Guatemágica (Coatepeque-Retalhuleu-Mazatenango), Puerto Barrios, Zacapa-Chiquimula and Escuintla. We must build the country for the next fifty years.
Let us serve the population where it lives while we build the cities where it will live.